Character

I do believe I was born clothed in crimson and houndstooth; at the very least, I was swaddled in it. All Southern youngsters are expected to declare an allegiance to the SEC and a political party before they are enrolled in Kindergarten-  my Pa made sure I didn’t fall behind the curve. It’s “Roll Tide” and pass the molasses, thank you.

Truly, I am a sports fiend. Pa didn’t actually start me off with football, though. He started with baseball- Braves baseball. He never cared for basketball, or any other professional sport, other than baseball. But he was doggedly dedicated to the Braves and The Bear. We watched both, in black and white, with the television volume off, and I learned every minute detail of both sports far ahead of the Kindergarten benchmark.

There was a mighty good reason for listening to the play by play over the radio, and if you have ever endured a sportscast with Vern and Gary, you can relate. Commentary, both on and off the field, makes or breaks a game experience. There is (still) nothing like listening to Eli Gold and just knowing his heart’s pumping just as hard as the kids’ on the field, below. Pa passed away just three hours after watching his last Bama game, against Ole Miss- called by Eli Gold, of course. Those sixty minutes of football were his last moments of clarity. Someone dared to lower the radio volume, and received a rare, sharp reprimand from the old fella. They’d assumed he was no longer aware. They were wrong.

It was the second week of the 2004 season. Today, we are counting down the final hours to the start of a new era in college football. This year, we have “our” own network, which is something Pa would’ve agreed with, and then he’d pray “our” network would NOT hire Vern and Gary. This season we are also moving on from the BCS system, and into a playoff format, for the first time in college football history. These administrative changes I’m sure Pa’d be proud of, and then, because he was old school, a charter member of The Greatest Generation, there are many (many) fundamental changes he would find reprehensible.

My son never had the opportunity to know Pa. They missed out on each other. I talk so often about my grandparents, though, that my son does FEEL as if he always knew them. He knows to pay attention to the world of sports, because sports programs build character. And character builds men.

We’ve traveled to sports events for the past three years. Our school is tiny, fiercely independent, and overflowing with character. Before even starting school, at the wise old age of three, he was playing the only organized sport available to him (soccer), and there hasn’t been a season since that he hasn’t been involved in competition.

Competitiveness is the point at which my child and I separate. I am competitive. He is compassionate. He has a giver’s heart, and plays with his heart out there for everybody to see. It took me a couple of seasons to recognize and (reluctantly) accept that he is never going to be a cut-throat, in your face, type athlete. He plays because he loves the sport, and because he loves his teammates.

Our tiny school nurtures children. We are “growing” men, here. We are raising children with the expectation that they will then become self sufficient, diligent, capable, and productive Americans. We are raising Christians. When we, as a school family, travel to sporting events, we do so with a very clear understanding that we are there, collectively, representing Christ. Our children participate in and adhere to all written and implied standards of Christian self government. When they play, they know we are all expecting them to play fair, with humility, with respect, and with grace. Athletic participation is a privilege, not a right.

Last night, our team traveled to compete against another Christian school. As I said, I am extremely competitive, and I always WANT our side to prevail. If and when we aren’t successful on the scoreboard, I can usually take solace in the humble and respectful manner in which our young athletes choose to handle a loss. And, last night, our kids did not walk away as victors. Unless you believe victory is something other than a tally on the scoreboard.

The true measure of Christian character is not evaluated by observing the attitude of the winner. The true measure of Christian character is in how well you represent Christ in adversity. When you are eleven years old, standing on the line facing, an opponent who physically outpaces you in every measurable way, you have to summon up some real courage. After he mows you down, you shake it off. You pick yourself up. You line up, with the help of your teammates. You look up- way up- into the eyes of your adversary, and you tackle low. He’s on the ground, now, underneath YOUR feet. The difference is, you help him up.

The world of sports is not what it used to be. From the first day they are eligible to participate, athletes should be held accountable for their decisions. For many children across the Southeast, sports are held up as a way out- of poverty, of deprivation, of neglect, even. Corruption is so rampant, even Pop Warner players, as young as grade school, are groomed and scouted for “future prospects”. The focus is taken off character development and shifted to athletic prowess. Colleges recruit players, not young men. The league allows players to carry on however they wish, and players do exactly that, knowing that there will be no true accountability, always believing themselves to be an irreplaceable asset. The problem with the “asset” philosophy is this: everybody is replaceable. Talent only sustains a player for a season; character sustains men unto Heaven.

I didn’t hear a single player from the opposing team last night represent Christ in any manner. Initially, it made me quite angry. But, then there’s this little kid of mine, always keeping my perspective in check, grinning like a pig in mud, asking if I saw him “almost make that play”. Yes, I did see. And yes, Pa would be so very proud.

 I have tried to teach them to show class, to have pride, and to display character. I think football, winning games , takes care of itself if you do that.
Paul “Bear” Bryant

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